A Sermon Preached on Good Friday, April 3, 2015
By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral Columbia, South Carolina
Texts: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; John 18:1-19:42
Behold the Man of Sorrows!
Behold the Lord of Love!
Behold Christ Crucified!
On this day, we behold the Lord Jesus on the Cross.
“To behold” means more than simply “to see.” When we behold something, we take it to ourselves, we participate in it, we share in it, we grasp it.
So what is it that we participate in on this day? What do we take and claim and grasp as we go in heart and mind to Calvary? What do we behold when we behold Christ Crucified?
We behold, first, the fullness of Jesus’ humanity. The Nicene Creed, after telling us of the eternal Son of God who is the only-begotten of the Father, goes on to say that “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” We celebrate the wonder of Christ’s incarnation—of his coming among us as one of us—at Christmas. And yet nowhere do we see Christ’s fleshly nature so clearly—nowhere do we see his identification with the human condition so completely—as on Good Friday.
It is a bitter and a cruel irony that we should behold the humanity of Jesus most clearly in his Crucifixion, because the Cross was a tool expressly intended for the awful work of dehumanization. Crucifixion was a distillation of all the clever cruelty, all the ingenious inhumanity, all the brilliant brutality that the mighty Roman Empire could muster.
For the process of crucifixion did so much more than merely kill a person.Rather, a crucified person ceased to be a person on the Cross. That is what this means of state-sanctioned murder was intended to do. The Cross was a carefully designed machine for the unmaking of a human being.
The grinding wheels of dehumanization began to turn as soon as sentence was passed. The person condemned to be crucified would be forced to carry his own cross to the place of execution. He would be stripped naked and exposed—shamed and humiliated before the face of the world—and then he would be nailed or tied to the cross and lifted aloft.
The crowds that gathered to witness the proceedings were part of the punishment, gleefully adding their taunts and mockeries, heaping scorn upon the hapless head of the pierced victim. The death itself was slow—agonizingly slow—and made the crucified man his own executioner, for it was the hanging weight of the crucified body that would, over the course of many hours (and sometimes many days) sap his strength and constrict his rib-cage, making breathing increasingly difficult, and at last impossible.
And then, after death, the dehumanizing power of crucifixion continued. Ordinarily, crucified bodies would not be removed for burial. They would be left to rot in place, exposed to the elements and the animals—denied even the dignity of a grave.
This was a punishment reserved for the very lowest of the low—a punishment for the most depraved criminals; a punishment for slaves; a punishment for nobodies. It was a punishment that expunged the record of the crucified’s existence—a punishment that removed him from the rolls of the human race.
This lowliness, this brutal unmaking, this systematic dehumanization, then, is what we behold in the Crucified Christ. We behold Jesus, whose birth was announced by an Angel to his virgin mother—Jesus, who was declared God’s anointed at his Baptism in the River Jordan—Jesus, who cast out demons, who healed the sick, who gave sight to the blind, who opened the ears of the deaf, who caused the lame to leap like a deer, and who made the tongues of the dumb to sing—Jesus who cleansed the lepers, and ate with the tax collectors and prostitutes—Jesus who preached Good News to the poor, and who raised the dead to life—Jesus who revealed to us the fullness of what a human being is and should be! This Jesus we now behold taking unto himself all the whips and scorns of human brokenness, sharing completely with the outcasts and the imperfect, the unacceptable, and the unclean—even dying their miserable death.
“He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Christ on the Cross reveals himself to be present with all those who are despised and rejected; all who are dehumanized and destroyed; all women and men of sorrows; all who are acquainted with grief.
And this identification—this complete union with the suffering of human beings—cannot be overemphasized, because it reaches with power into every human era, every human culture, and every human heart. For while the Romans may have invented and perfected the method of dehumanization called crucifixion, yet the deep drive to dehumanize did not begin or end with the servants of Caesar.
We behold that drive at work through all the long annals of our weary world. We behold the drive to dehumanize manifested in the actions of ISIS, as it continues its drive to destroy and desecrate all that does not fit within its own very narrow theology. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the actions of a troubled pilot who unmade himself and all of his passengers by crashing his plane into the Alps. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the systematic murder of one hundred fifty college students in Kenya.
We behold the drive to dehumanize closer to home in the senseless deaths of college students through hazing rituals and binge drinking. We behold the drive to dehumanize in political systems that heed the howls of plutocrats and ignore the weeping of the voiceless. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the cruel taunts of schoolyard bullies and the careless words of workplace tyrants. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the abuse of spouses and the neglect of children. We behold the drive to dehumanize exposed every day on the front page of the newspaper, and splashed across every corner of the Internet.
And we behold it, at last, hidden away in the silent brokenness of our own hearts. For who of us has not known rejection and sorrow? Who of us is not acquainted with grief? The truth, beloved, is that to be human in this world means that we will endure dehumanization.
So it is that on the Cross, we see Jesus’ humanity made plain. The crucified Christ reveals to us his abiding presence with the lowest and the least, with the suffering and the sorrowful—with us in the depths of our degradation and in the hour of our death.
And yet, Christ’s complete identification with those who are made to suffer is not the only thing that we glimpse when we look upon the crucified Lord. I have said that the Cross reveals Jesus to us in the fullness of his humanity. But the fullness of his humanity goes beyond his solidarity with the victims of dehumanization. The fullness of Jesus’ humanity revealed at the crucifixion embraces the victimizers as well.
Hear again these words from Chapter 53 of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Christ suffering on the Cross reveals to us his love and care for the lowly and the sorrowful—for all the victims of sin. But what Isaiah announces today is that Christ suffering on the Cross also reveals to us his willing self-offering for the guilty and the guileful, the warped and the wicked, the erring and the evil, the delinquent and the damned—for the transgressors: all the perpetrators of sin.
But if we say that Christ offers himself on the Cross for the sake of the guilty, we must then find the courage to ask: who are they? Who are those guilty ones? Who are “the perpetrators of sin”?
When you hear Isaiah speak of “transgressors” or hear me ask about “the perpetrators of sin”, does your mind immediately conjure up the image of a certain person or group of people? Mine does. I think of the people I’ve read about in the paper or heard about on the news: the people who are obviously guilty, the people who deserve punishment, the people who have done deeply wicked things. I think of the people I know who can’t seem to get it together, who can’t seem to straighten their lives out, who can’t seem to pick themselves up. I think of folks who are different from me, folks I disagree with, folks who have hurt me or hindered me, folks I don’t like or don’t understand.
When I hear Isaiah talk about transgressors and “perpetrators of sin,” I immediately—immediately!—begin to label and to judge; to place certain people within that guilty group, all the while keeping myself and my friends safely within the ranks of the righteous.
And by that mental process, through that inner sense of judgment and self-righteousness, Behold! in an instant, I recognize the same dehumanizing drive that nailed Jesus to the Cross to be alive and active in my heart! In my silent effort to prove myself upright, I suddenly see my own power to deny and desecrate the image of God in others. As I mentally “unmake” other human beings, casting them into the rubbish pile of the rotten and the unworthy, I see my own cavernous capacity for cruelty—my own eagerness to draw boundaries, to exclude, to despise, and to reject.
“He was wounded for our transgressions.” And who were the transgressors? Who were the perpetrators? “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee.”
Beloved, Jesus on the Cross reveals to us the fullness of his humanity, and he calls us to claim with humility and repentance the fullness of our own broken humanity as well. For Christ on the Cross bears the pain of the sinned against…and he also bears the penalty due the sinner! Christ on the Cross embraces both my brokenness and my ability to break; both your pain and your power to cause pain; both our sorrows and our sins. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to see in one body all the disobedience and dehumanization of the whole human race: the sins that you and I have endured, and the sins that you and I have committed.
And at last it is to behold one thing more. For the scandalous claim of the Christian Church is that the Cross does not reveal the humanity of Jesus only—but it reveals his divinity as well.
For this, his hour of shame and degradation, of sorrow and dehumanization, is also his hour of glory. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to glimpse and know, and receive, and claim the self-giving love of Almighty God. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to behold God’s wondrous love not for the righteous, but for sinners. “[For] God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against him…He made him to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
All that we behold this day, beloved, however bitter and difficult, is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. For today this instrument of torture, this mark of our misery, this banner of our brokenness, this sign of Sin’s power, this declaration of Death’s grip, God has freely chosen and proclaimed to be the supreme announcement of his love! By the Cross of Christ, God has come to restore his tarnished image in us. By the Cross of Christ, the Good Shepherd has come to seek and to find his straying and wandering sheep. By the Cross of Christ, the King of Glory has come to claim his power and reign. By the Cross of Christ, the Creator of the world has come to renew his dead and dying creation. By the Cross of Christ, “for our atonement, while we nothing heeded, God interceded.”
I said at the beginning of this sermon that beholding means more than simply seeing. As you gaze upon the Cross today, may you indeed behold Christ Crucified. May you claim him, grasp him, cling to him. May you behold here the fullness of his humanity and yours: the revelation of the brokenness of this world and the brokenness of your own heart.
But even more, may you behold here the love of God that will not let you go. May you behold here the love that comes to seek you in the depths of your sorrow and in the darkness of your sins. On this Good Friday, may you behold—and be held by—those arms of love stretched out on the hard wood of the Cross, drawing all the world into his saving embrace.